Filling empty Jurmala hotels

  • 1999-03-04
  • Katya Cengel
How do hotels in a resort town survive the Latvian winter? Katya Cengel visited snow covered Jurmala to find out.

In the 1980s, before Boris Yeltsin became president and took to hiding, he used to stay in Jurmala at Rigas Licis Hotel and Sanitarium. The 1969 building, known for its medical treatment, was full year round. Top Soviet officials and their entourages would come twice a year and stay on average for 24 days.

Yeltsin's health is not the only thing that has deteriorated over the years.

On a snowy day in February, only one man swims in the large Rigas Licis swimming pool. In the dining room built for 200, three people eat lunch; only four people occupy the hotel's 63 rooms.

"Are there any people staying in the hotel today?" asks the staff cosmetician Enriete Timofejeva.

The hotel is clean, offers everything from dentist work to hair cuts, and the staff is friendly. So why is it empty?

Since the end of the Soviet Union, hotels in the seaside resort town of Jurmala have been confronted with a new problem: how to attract winter visitors.

"Before 1991, our occupancy during the winter was 90 percent," said Aina Krastina, deputy director of bookings at Rigas Licis.

Before that time, Jurmala prospered. Special government "packages" allowed officials and those in favor with the Moscow authorities to stay in Jurmala at extremely low rates.

"Many people from the intelligentsia came," said Solveiga Freiberga, director of the Jurmala Information Center. "People who will never come again."

The "intelligentsia" she refers to are the writers, artists and musicians who were invited to stay at certain Diurnal houses. These visitors from all over the Soviet Union, especially Moscow, came year round and stayed for months at a time.

Then came what Freiberga calls Jurmala's "big dark crisis."

When the Soviet Union collapsed, hotels lost not only their customers but also support.

"As soon as Latvia broke free from the Soviet Union, the supply of guests was instantly cut off," said Oskars Alks, Rigas Licis marketing manager.

The next big loss came in 1993, when visa-free travel in the Commonwealth of Independent States stopped. Many hotels never recovered from the dark days. Those that did have been faced with seasonal problems ever since. Fifty-one hotels were registered in Jurmala in 1991; today there are only 31.

"All Jurmala hotels started suffering in the winter of 1993," said Freiberga.

Hotels lost 90 percent of their customers, including all their year long ones. Profits were no longer a question, survival was. Last spring's tense relations with Russia and the Russian economic crisis have only made matters worse.

Attracting locals and Scandinavians to Jurmala in summer proved easy, but winter still remains bare. Jurmala in winter is like staying at a party after all the guests have gone.

"Winter time is a very quiet time," admits Ineta Helviga, director of the Jurmala tourism bureau.

Alks goes a step further, saying winter in Jurmala is "very bad."

A few hotels shut down when the snow sets in, but most battle it out. Summer profits are used to keep the hotels up and running, and staff is often reduced or asked to take vacations. Still learning how to take advantage of advertising, hotel managers, even those who promote special winter deals and lower prices, find most of their rooms vacant.

Small hotels also suffer.

Jurmala's oldest hotel, the 35-room Majori built in 1923, has only about 10 percent occupancy in winter.

"We lost a lot of visitors after the Russian crisis," said hotel manager Dace Svenke.

Some of these clients have been replaced by Scandinavian visitors, but not nearly enough. For a while, the rich of Latvia came to stay at Rigas Licis, but they also have thinned out now. The hotel's receptionists enjoy spotting on television former customers, now dead or in jail.

Adding conference centers has provided a partial answer to the problem. Before Majori opened a 33-seat conference room last year, winter was "very difficult," said Svenke. The room has not created any profits, but it has helped the hotel survive. For big hotels, conference rooms have become a must. Last year, the 60- room Rigas Jurmala added two conference rooms.

Rigas Licis also opened a new conference center last year and plans on converting the billiard room into another conference center. The hotel has already booked six conferences for September. In order to attract Western business executives, the discussion rooms are equipped with air conditioning and modern updates that the rest of the hotel lacks.

Much of the Rigas Licis hotel is old; the exercise equipment, decorations and furniture date from the 1960s. There is still one sign written in Russian, and the floor of the indoor tennis court is uneven. Updates might be nice, but for now there is no money to change things.

Iris Rozenbarg, a receptionist with Rigas Jurmala, tries to see the positive side of things.

"In Soviet times, the hotel was for the Communist Party, now we are for all people."

If Jurmala hotels are to survive, they must find new ways to advertise and attract customers.

At Rigas Licis, photographs of Jurmala's beach and coastline cover an upstairs wall. Artistic and beautiful, the large photos lack only one thing: people.

"They have to get me better pictures," said Alks. "Pictures without people are not good for advertising."